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“So, this is the escape path.” Bloodbane looked at the hole in this rock wall, a dark maw threatening to bite into the back of Castle Reliant.

He had known about the existence of such an escape path, but he had never been there himself, even as the old Bloodbane. The fewer people knew about a place, the safer it would be. This was in a hidden location, and reaching it involved going off the beaten path from a courtyard pathway, progressing through three out-of-the-way gates, and climbing out a window and down a tower pushed against a rockface with just enough room for a single person to squeeze through.

 It technically wasn’t even inside the castle, even though it technically could be described as in the basement, as it didn’t connect with the rest of the lower level at all. Instead, it was located behind it in a small alcove where the wall parted from rock. The cave entrance had just enough room for two people to enter abreast, and the small hole above left barely enough light to navigate.

Bloodbane had worried about this location becoming a vulnerability that the undead could exploit, but he no longer thought such a thing. Two guards remained in that tower at all times, and it was designed that a single strong strike with a hammer could collapse the entire cave below. No one coming from the cave would be able to climb the rocky bricks up without making noise and being seen long before they reached the top.

“Ahhh!” Bloodbane reached up and caught a man who had lost his grip as he fell. “M-my lord.”

“Conner, you were a soldier?” Bloodbane asked incredulously as he put the nervous man down.

“Conscript… sir… I only have five weeks of training before the attack.” Conner flushed in embarrassment.

Bloodbane hadn’t originally intended to bring anyone else beyond the maids, but he had seen Conner standing around looking lost, and spontaneously decided to drag him along. He had made Conner the Head Mage, but since his magical ability didn’t match the ability of any of the other mages, it seemed like they had to each figure out their powers on their own. The other two men were much older than Conner, and they understood their place and their roles much more than he did. In other words, they didn’t need guidance or a leader, and Conner didn’t even know how to fill the role if they did.

That’s why Bloodbane decided to take him along. It’d give him a chance to work personally with the mages, and gain a better understanding of just how their position of power functioned and would grow. He could observe Andromeda, but her position was already somewhat abnormal. There was a second reason he decided to select Connor.

“Trigger this.” He held up a lantern in front of the still bumbling Conner.

“Y-yes!” He pointed, and a spark shot out, igniting the lantern.

Thanks to the memories in Bloodbane’s head from the previous prince, he knew that there could be pockets of dangerous gases loose in caves. Even though Bloodbane was following the same path as the fleeing citizens, their frantic movements as they ran away could have loosened up a pocket of something dangerous. He also planned to rearrange things a bit himself, and having Conner there allowed him to take care of those pockets safely, and also provide additional light.

“While we’re moving through the path, I want you to practice sending electricity from one hand to the next.”

“You want me to shock myself?” Conner’s eyes widened.

“No, I want you to maintain an electric arc between your hands.” Bloodbane corrected. “Can you send electricity toward yourself without being electrocuted?”

“I-I’ve never tried.” He blushed.

These kinds of questions were what Conner was supposed to be asking himself. Bloodbane had even opened the library and told them to study up on what is known about each of their respective talents. Bloodbane had to concede that there was likely very little literature available on lightning in this world. Batteries, currents, and the concepts of electromagnetism had not been discovered, at least in Reliant. Bloodbane was reassured that bringing Conner along was a good idea. There was a lot he needed to learn.

“Master, shall we go?” Andromeda asked.

Although it had only been a short few hours ago when Andromeda had been naked a servicing Bloodbane, she showed none of it now, acting business-like and proper. If there was any difference, the fervent look in her eyes when she glanced at Bloodbane had only seemingly grown sharper. Rather than her lust being satiated, it only seemed to be honed. Maid Three watched her out of the corner of her eye, remaining vigilant, even for the insanity of her boss.

“Lead the way,” Bloodbane ordered, letting the two maids walk first.

They began their trek, and it was only a few steps before they were plunged into complete darkness, the light of three lanterns being all that was there. Conner didn’t bring a lantern, since he was grabbed last minute, but that was also part of Bloodbane’s intentions.

“Listen up, Conner, as I don’t plan to repeat myself. All matter in the universe is made up of particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons. Electrons hold a charge, and can freely move between atoms…”

Conner perked up, giving his full attention to me, even at the expense of where he was walking. This resulted in him stubbing his toe and even tripping several times, but whenever I asked him to repeat what I had said, he was able to repeat it back to me verbatim. Conner would never be a powerful soldier, but Bloodbane was beginning to realize he had a good head on his shoulders, and might not be so bad after all.

He gave a lecture as they walked, explaining everything he could extract from the memories of the former Bloodbane on electricity and electromagnetism. This wasn’t purely for Conner’s benefit though. As he went through those memories, he was also processing them and tossing what was irrelevant away. Over time, the memories of the former Bloodbane had started to mesh with his own, but he’d rather control what he took from the former Bloodbane rather than let it happen naturally, so he made worked his mind almost as much as he worked Conner’s mind.

This wasn’t the only thing Bloodbane was doing as he walked. He also practiced his earth skill. Specifically, he was practicing feeling the earth as he walked. He was trying to create a mental map around him, getting a feel for the metals and of which type. He’d occasionally channel a bit of earth, widening up a hole or flattening a pathway. He was able to do most of it while they moved. He only had to stop a few times when Andromeda struggled to read the map, and he needed to determine which pathway they should go. Various tunnels split off into two or three directions, and it wasn’t always obvious which direction they needed to go.

Most fake pathways ended after a ten- or fifteen-minute walk, and with enough focus, he could figure out which pathways were a dead end pretty quickly. When they passed, he also closed up these false passages. He planned to turn this path into a permanent route into and out of the Reliant palace, so he decided to start by closing off any confusion.

When he finished closing off one such fake pathway, he turned to Conner. “These pathways are a bit like your body. Electricity requires a route to take, and if you take the right route, they can pass through quickly and safely. If they take the wrong route, then you could die.”

Conner swallowed hard but gave a nod. “I understand.”

“Hm.” Andromeda looked back at me; her eyes partially closed with amusement.

“What?” Bloodbane frowned at her.

“When you speak like that, you remind me of the old Bloodbane.”

“Is that so?” Bloodbane raised an eyebrow.

“I used to find such a thing snobbish, that you were looking down on us for not understanding.”

“You found it irritating?”

Andromeda seemed to realize what she said, raising her hands helplessly. “That’s not what I mean, Master! I now realize Master wishes to bring us up with you. You teach us lessons so that we can be raised. I now find this speech cute.”

“Cute,” Bloodbane repeated without any inflection.

“M-m-m-master…” Andromeda had become completely flustered with just a few words.

Perhaps she wasn’t as cool-headed after their previous night as she tried to pretend. Bloodbane didn’t hate flustered in the usually cool Andromeda. The gladiator had usually only viewed women as a prize to enjoy and throw away, but since he had started to blend with the other Bloodbane, he had found himself gaining increasingly more pleasure in teasing and upsetting them. Lady Kait was a lot easier to fluster though. He’d enjoy getting reactions out of her once he returned.

“Be careful.” He stopped suddenly, frowning as he looked into the darkness. “I feel some instability.”

That wasn’t entirely correct. It wasn’t instability that he felt, but a slight vibration in the ground. It was something that absolutely shouldn’t have been there. As deep under the mountain as they were at the moment, there should have been nothing. Yet, he could feel the faintest vibration, and was there a breeze? It wasn’t just a simple breeze either.

“The air is warm.” Maid Three warned as she looked around.

“Imagination?” Andromeda accused.

“No, she’s correct.” Bloodbane dropped to one knee, touching the ground with his fingertips to see if he could grasp more with the vibration.

At that point, they were only about three hours into the mountain. The entire journey would take three days. They had only just begun, yet there was already something along the path that didn’t feel quite right. However, the feeling was distant, and the breeze was subtle. In the end, he could only gesture for them to continue.

While Bloodbane was trying to remain cautious, he also kept them at a brisk pace. The sooner they overtook the fleeing citizens, the better off they would be. If they reached them before they reached the docks, that would be the for the best. It was possible that their pace through the mountain wasn’t very fast. They might have been anticipating more people coming, or they might have felt some reluctance to abandon their home. The slower they went, the better it was by Bloodbane’s reasoning. It was another three hours before they hit a dead end. Bloodbane walked up to a pile of rubble and touched the crumbled stones.

“This should be the way. I’m sure of it.” Andromeda spoke confidently while glancing at the map.

“A cave-in.” Bloodbane declared.

“Are you sure? It doesn’t look fresh.” Maid Three observed.

“It would have happened months ago.” Bloodbane gritted his teeth as he picked up a stone in his hand.

“If it happened months ago, then what about the citizens?” Conner looked around nervously. “Shouldn’t they be stuck here?”

“They wouldn’t have gone back,” Andromeda interjected. “There would have been nothing to go back to.”

“They would have tried to reason out another way.” Bloodbane crushed the stone, pulverizing it into dust before letting it fall to the ground. “They’re not following the proper path.”

This made everything infinitely more difficult. It was already hard enough when there was a semi-direct route. If they left the route, hoping to take another path across the mountain, then they could be anywhere under the mountain range. They could spend weeks looking for them and never find a trace.

“If they discovered this block the same way we did, then they would likely take this pathway. It looks like it wraps around and then reconnects with the main pathway about a kilometer down.” Andromeda interpreted.

“We’ll have to see then.” Bloodbane agreed.

Before doubling back, Bloodbane used his powers to reopen the pathway. He cleared the stone aside and then reformed some of the rubble into rock pillars which forced archways. His mind told him arches contained the most support. The collapse had only taken about ten meters of the path, but when Bloodbane thought about how much that ten meters cost them, he could only feel irritation. He stared down the pathway leading to the dock.

“Should we continue?” Andromeda asked.

Ultimately, the destination was the dock. Had they left this path and returned to it as Andromeda predicted, then doubling back and taking a side path was just a meaningless diversion. They’d cut time and bring themselves closer to the group by continuing in a straight line. On the other hand, had the group not been able to return to the main path, the only chance of finding them would be to follow the side pathway and hope.

Their goal was the dock, so getting to the dock as quickly as possible was the most intelligent thing to do. Bloodbane made the call. They continued on the main path, continuing to straighten, fix, and close off other paths along the way. Bloodbane wanted the path to be as simple as possible. In time, he would also widen it and level it out. If it could be large enough a cart could be brought through, they would be the best. Such a major project wasn’t something he had time for with the city half in flames though, so he settled for whatever it’d take to allow the journey back to be as quick and harmless as possible.

They finished traveling twelve hours, and Bloodbane finally called for a break. The one who was the most exhausted was Conner, who was breathing hard and barely standing. Not only had he been tasked with keeping up with the rest of them, but he was also continuously using his powers whenever he had the energy. The steady Bzz of electricity and the blue flashes of light had already become a normal occurrence on their path.  

After six hours of practice, he had gotten to the point where he could keep the arc continuously moving between his hands, and more importantly, he wasn’t using very much energy maintaining it. Since he was only circulating the energy and not creating more energy, Bloodbane had hoped that this would require very little of his stamina to maintain, and it appeared like he was right. However, Conner was far too tired to take on the next task, so Bloodbane had left it there.

They found a spot right in the middle of the main route and then sat down. They shared out rations and ate quietly without a fire.

“We will move again in five hours.” Bloodbane set the time.

Conner stifled a groan, instead of lying on the ground, fitfully trying to use his pack to be comfortable. Bloodbane laid back on the ground. He didn’t know if it was a consequence of his Earthen gift, but he found the ground to be rather cool and comfortable for him. The maids silently found their spots. He had thought Andromeda might attempt to make her spot next to or on top of him, but it appeared she wasn’t as willful as he had thought. A certain part of him was a bit regretful of that, but he supposed it was for the best.

Once everyone started to quiet down, Bloodbane sat back up again. He could feel that vibration from earlier again. This time, it felt a bit more vivid. It was a rhythmic pattern, not just a general shifting. Frowning, he looked around at the others. Conner was already snoring slightly, his mouth agape as he was deep in sleep. As he quietly started to crawl down the hallway, Andromeda’s eyes snapped open, immediately locking on Bloodbane.

He ignored her, instead, trying to familiarize himself with the gift, touching the ground carefully as he moved along. He eventually brought his ear down and pressed it against the cool earth. Listening to the thrumming sound, he became even more certain that it was being created. It wasn’t a natural sound.

Bloodbane placed his hands on the earth, and then slowly separated them, the ground started to separate, but it didn’t make very much noise as he split it with his power. He sunk into the hole he created and then separated some more. He pushed the rocks aside as easily as someone could push away the sand. When there wasn’t room for the rock to move, he compressed it, creating a more solid, dense matter than had previously existed.

Rather than guess or wait to see what was happening, Bloodbane began to dig a hole straight toward the vibrations. Once he was already twice his length down into the ground, he heard some rustling behind him and turned to look back. Andromeda had crawled in behind him, blindly traveling into the dark tunnel without a lantern after him. He waited without a word as her hands fumbled around until she touched his ankle. Then, he turned back around and started digging once again.

Although this was a time for rest, Bloodbane was never the time to leave things alone. He spent nearly two hours digging through the ground, creating a tunnel just large enough for himself, which by comparison was plenty of room for Andromeda, who was following behind without a word, using the feel of his ankle to guide her. As he went, the vibrations started to turn to sounds, and those sounds became increasingly vivid.

The other thing that changed was an increase in heat. The mountain had been cool at first, but he was starting to sweat as the little crawl tunnel turned into a sweltering oven. He finally reached a point where he felt there was a space without rock beyond, a cavern. He could hear the sound of innumerable thudding, still dulled by the rock in front of him. He had to see what was beyond.

Bloodbane positioned himself so we were lying parallel to the empty cavity beyond, and created enough space for Andromeda to crawl up beside him. Once that was done, he reached out and pulled away rock, creating a space directly under their heads. As soon as he peeked through, light began to leak up into their crawl space. He only created enough space for his eyes to look through. What he saw was a massive chamber. There were torches, and there were rows and rows of goblins. Each one had a pickaxe, and they were digging a path. That path was leading straight for Reliant!

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